Again and again this year, scenes of racial injustice have played out before our eyes. African Americans insist that such incidents are nothing new; the difference is that now iPhones and body cameras record them for the world to see. Tragically, some of the resulting protests have led to violence.

In a year marked by division and hostility, I find myself going back to an event from 2015 that played out in Charleston, South Carolina. One warm evening a young white man with blond hair joined 12 African Americans in a Bible study at the historic Mother Emanuel church. He was the first white man to attend, and the others welcomed him gladly.

Dylann Roof sat through the hour-long lesson on Jesus’ parable of sowing the seed. As the group stood for a closing prayer, he reached into his fanny pack, pulled out a Glock .45 mm pistol and proceeded to shoot the Bible study members. Moving methodically from one table to the next, he fired at point-blank range, all the while yelling racial slurs and insults. “I have to do it,” he shouted. “You rape our women, and you are taking over our country. And you have to go!”

Dylann reloaded his automatic pistol five times. He stood over the victims, searching for any signs of life, and fired a total of 60 bullets into their bodies. Nine people died that night in an act that stunned the nation. The killer let one woman live, so she could tell the story of what happened, and two others somehow managed to survive.

Last year, the basketball player Stephen Curry and the actress Viola Davis joined together to produce a movie, Emanuel, about the church massacre. And a pastor named Anthony Thompson published a personal account: Called to Forgive. Thompson dedicated his book to the memory of the Emanuel Nine, including his wife Myra, the leader of the Bible study. For years Myra had studied to become a minister and that very night had finally received her preaching license. The fateful Bible study at Emanuel church was the first that she led—and the last.

To show support for Myra, Emanuel’s pastor—who also served as a state senator—skipped an important political meeting and joined the Bible study. He too was killed, and a short time later President Barack Obama would travel to Charleston to speak at his funeral. Who can forget the moving scene of a U. S. President trying to control his voice as he spontaneously led the singing of the hymn Amazing Grace.

In his book, Anthony Thompson tells of the person he used to be: an angry black man who worked for 25 years in the South Carolina Department of Parole and Probation, where he had been the butt of racial insults and discrimination. Along the way he met God, and his life turned around. Thompson quit his job, studied theology, and became a pastor. Now he was left without his wife of sixteen years, a victim of a hate crime.

Can I do it? he wondered. Can I, in the darkest remote closets of my all-too-human heart, forgive Dylann Roof for the cold-blooded murder of my beloved companion?

Over the next few days Rev. Thompson thought back to other scenes of forgiveness. The Amish people in Nickel Mines, Pennsylvania, who embraced the family of the man who had shot ten of their schoolchildren. Corrie ten Boom, who came to forgive the guard who had abused her in a Nazi concentration camp. Jesus’ disciple Stephen, who forgave his killers even as they were stoning him to death.

Two days after the murder, Anthony Thompson takes his two children to the bond hearing for Dylann Roof, who is present only on a video link from the jail. Dylann stands still, head down, eyes lowered, showing no expression, his hands cuffed behind his back.

At the hearing, the judge does something very unusual for a bond hearing. He reads out the names of each of the nine victims, one by one, and asks if any of their family members wish to speak. Suddenly Thompson hears his wife’s name called. He hadn’t even planned to attend the hearing until his children begged him to go. Now he finds himself walking to the podium, staring at Dylann Roof’s face on the flat-screen monitor.

“I forgive you,” he says to Dylann. “And my family forgives you. But we would like you to take this opportunity to repent. Repent. Confess. Give your life to the One who matters the most: Jesus Christ, so that he can change it and change your attitude.”

Forgiveness of racial injustice

Rev. Thompson’s words get broadcast, and are quoted in newspaper headlines all over the world. Some of the victims’ families object—forgiveness is the furthest thing from their minds. But somehow that public act of forgiveness helps set a tone of reconciliation. Charleston authorities had braced for protests and riots in the shooting’s aftermath. They don’t happen. There are no arrests, no assaults, and no bloodshed.

Instead, more than 15,000 people of all colors and faiths join hands, creating a human chain that stretches for two miles across a bridge connecting Charleston to a nearby white community. At Myra Thompson’s funeral, the South Carolina Governor, Nikki Haley speaks. “Myra Thompson taught our state and country how to love,” she says. “And Anthony, you and your family taught our state and our country how to forgive.” A short time later, after decades of controversy, she orders that the Confederate flag be removed from the State House grounds.

Praying for the power of forgivenessWhat happened in Charleston shows the power of forgiveness, the power of grace. In our own lives, each of us will face times—with a spouse, with children, or an employer, or neighbor—when we feel wronged. At such a time forgiveness may seem utterly impossible. Maybe it is, without supernatural help.

Listen to the words of Anthony Thompson. “I forgave Dylann because I was called to forgive. I believe forgiveness recognizes that the love of God is more powerful than white racist hatred. When I made the conscious decision and commitment to forgive Dylann Roof, my forgiveness meant that Dylann would not be allowed to control my life forever. My decision came from God’s strength, not from my human weakness.”




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27 responses to “Showing Us Another Way”

  1. Dawn Baker says:

    Always speaking right to the heart! THANK YOU for this…and the John Donne Devotions! YES!!

  2. As I read through the responses to this blog I try to sense your readership. I also try to sense your sensibilities, as well. I loved your books twenty years ago and only yesterday re-opened the book Finding God in Unexpected Places. I loved your wisdom and wonderfully expressive writing. My favorite book is The Jesus I Never Knew. I believe I will reread it one of these days. But I am not quite as impressed by the words.
    I went back a moment ago and read a brief article on your confusion as to why evangelicals voted for Trump. 80 million Americans voted for him this time, I wonder, do you understand anymore than you did in 2016? Perhaps you should ponder the possibility of finding God in unexpected people. As a historian I see the workings of God in our nation and its past and I can discern those patterns of familiarity from one generation to the next. History clothes the same human natures in different eras, but tendencies inevitably resemble the book of Judges. Man is good and mindful of God, a deteriorating society rejecting God experiences some type of punishing force, at which time society cries out to God and He raises up a judge to guide/deliver the people. I don’t presume that America may claim God’s promises to his chosen people, but I do believe that Christian people are heard by Him. We are a very polarized nation today and it is not something that is unique. It happened 150 years ago; But instead of permanent division, a specific man for the time fought with grit, determination and purpose to not only keep the nation from division but righted a great wrong (Slavery.) It was a fight for freedom, not just for a race of people but also for a nation that was up to then only dedicated to a proposition that all men are created equal. Abraham Lincoln amended our Constitution to offer a more permanent fix. But inevitable moral decay followed by punishing times of suffering often subsided because of great awakenings and Christian revivals of faith. We have experienced a many-decades descent into depravity that our nation has not seen since 1860. Only now it is an unborn population denied the freedom to live. More horrific than any of our past national sins in every way. Is it beyond comprehension to believe God may be using flawed men in His plan to allow America a renewed Christian revival? True, it is not 80 million Christians who voted one way; but I wonder how many Christians voted for a pro-choice candidate because of some disconnection between what truly matters to God and what is real wickedness hidden in a whitewashed tomb. That God would use a Samson, a Moses, or a David is a confirmed truth. That God could use a Trump is somehow preposterous? Based on the wisdom of the past, our nation will pay for abortion. When and under what circumstances is the million dollar question. If Lincoln(the real man, not the myth) a very flawed and often un-Christian fighter, could oversee the abolition of slavery and the horrendous price our nation paid for it; then perhaps God might use a fighter of a similar sort to usher in Grace to a nation on the brink again.

  3. Roy David Stafford says:

    In the hope we can forgive and reunite this country with God’s help, I read your blog about forgiveness and it struck a deep chord within me. Since it now looks as though we will survive Trump and have a new president, one of the worst most intractable problems Biden will face in reuniting this nation will be instilling in people the importance of seeking truth to problems confronting our nation.  In the last four years we as a people have been subjected to the worst president in our history.  A national nightmare. The internet and its social media outlets have been used as a weapon for his obsessions and his fanatical followers.  His greed, selfishness, all consuming ego, narrow minded, bigotry, and pathological lying, have consumed his every waking moment.  How do we get people to seek truth instead of conspiracy theories.  How do we get all americans to have empathy and forgive each other. America and the world are facing a deadly pandemic and a climate crisis at the same time.  How do we get Americans to gather information from diverse reliable sources and evaluate and weigh the information to determine what is true.  If an individual relies on a single source of news, that person is going to feel comfortable in their ignorance, and believe only that news sources bias because it gives them just what they want to hear and not the truth. My father was a newspaper man that worked at many newspapers in his life before he married.  During the years I grew up he worked for the Herald American in Chicago.  He told me as a young man to never rely on one newspapers information and the importance of gathering facts from many sources.  So, now we live in a time of antiscience, just when it is the most important thing to our very survival.  I so want to see America become a nation seeking truth, justice, empathy, and love for one another.  After hearing President elect Biden’s acceptance speech, I am thrilled and once again filled with hope.  His empathy, his faith, his call for unity, justice, and forgiveness are now hopefully going to lead us out of this darkness.  We must learn to practice forgiveness and empathy for all Ameicans. I hope every American seeks unity now and prays for this new president.

  4. Unabis says:

    It’s a very tragic story, I don’t know why I haven’t heard anything about it before. It’s scary, as in principle, all the other protests this year. Discrimination on the basis of race is an issue that has unfortunately been resolved for centuries and I think it will not be resolved yet shortly. It is very sad. And from your article, I am sincerely surprised by the example of Anthony, who was able to forgive this. Because really forgiving the enemy is always the most difficult task and for this, you need to have a very big heart. I don’t know if I could do that, probably not.

  5. Maria Guerrero says:

    What a shame on evangelicals that in 2016 they elected the opposite of Obama and continue to support him today. They questioned Obama’s faith but have no problem with the president who never goes to church.
    There will be a lot to answer for in the evangelical church.

  6. Annette says:

    We in South Africa, where the government try to keep all the murders on our farmers away from the world, need this message very much. May the Lord help us to forgive likewise..

  7. Judy says:

    On October 22, Mark posted this comment: “In this blog, Yancey is actually supporting the idea that blacks must endure trauma and violence stoically and with grace while whites are allowed to fight back. It’s a continuation of the systemic racism in this country, and highlighting it in this way is harmful.” I was unable to get the “reply” button to work, so this post is my reply to Mark. I hope he sees it.

    Yancey’s blog did not suggest stoic endurance. Rather he highlighted the power of grace to transform society. He mentioned two examples of white people forgiving: an Amish community after the brutal deaths of ten of their children, and Corrie ten Boom who forgave a Nazi prison guard. The blog primarily featured the actions of Anthony Thompson and some powerful results of Anthony’s forgiveness: 15,000 people joined in a peaceful demonstration and the South Carolina governor removed the Confederate flag.

    At no point does Yancey excuse the injustices or brutality. He highlights the power of the spiritual weapon of forgiveness. Forgiveness may appear similar to stoicism, but it is immeasurably more powerful.

  8. Forgiveness is alright but does not mean the offender goes unpunished. Justice must be seen to be done to pacify the offended party. Psalm 35 is clear in its emphasis that God will continue to fight against those who fight the godly.
    What’s more, God forgave Israel of old for all their transgressions but allowed them to live in captivity or seventy years (Jeremiah 29: 9,10). When Israel forgot the wonders of the Lord and became lustful, God forgave them but only after sending them trouble in their lives (Psalm 106:13-15

  9. What a story. In recent years, we have been fire-hosed with stories of hate and violence. Only the grace and goodness of God moving in the hearts of individuals can turn these terrible stories into stories of hope and inspiration. Thank you so much for always searching the sea of humanity for reminders that God IS moving by His Spirit in this broken world. For now, we see through a glass darkly, but we will one day see Him face to face, all things will be made right and our questions as to His mysterious ways will finally be put to rest. God bless you as you spread the beautiful message of grace and hope. My family always looks forward to reading/hearing your insightful ponderings.

  10. Belinda Galvez says:

    Àgain..thank you for this article🍇
    The “called” needs to be reminded of the midst of divisions, chaos, hurt, abuse of leaders….
    ..badly needed grace to forgive and live with joyously and focus on The Lord’s face..💚

  11. Roslyn Manning Bourgeois says:

    Philip, I wanted to stop reading the story when you got to the place of telling us how he killed, etc. I didn’t want to read about anymore violence. But I did continue. This story does have a good ending. Forgiveness through Grace…. always Grace is what our Father is ready to give us… even before we ask. Thank you

  12. Ralph E. says:

    I was just reading this scripture today from I John: “If we say that we have no sin, we are deceiving ourselves and the truth is not in us.” I think of that a lot when I see things that involve injustice and especially racial injustice. I have to remember that I am rightfully angry at what happens to George Floyd or Breonna Taylor or the Emanuel Nine, but if I fail to turn the mirror in my direction, I may be on the path to becoming the next Dylann Roof. It irritates me when I hear some professed Christians (even evangelicals) brush off the issue whenever a horrible injustice takes place. I fear they may be leading others down the primrose path to self-righteous deception. I just need to ask God daily to help me hold my ground.

  13. Frances MacEwan says:

    Philip- thank you as always for sharing such an important, relevant and challenging story. When I originally read and then led a study group on What’s So Amazing About Grace many years ago now, I recall how much I learned and came to understand about the power and beauty of forgiveness and how much in my own life God has forgiven. Though I have never faced the kind of tragedies you use as examples in the book or ones like the Emanuel Church, I pray that God can help me find the courage and faith to be able to get to that place of true forgiveness in my heart for my small and truly unimportant daily challenges, not to mention if something has heart wrenching as Emanuel hit close to me. Looking forward to your revised version of What’s So Amazing About Grace. Your words are a great blessing especially in these turbulent times. Thank you.

  14. jim faircloth says:

    this the good news

  15. Brent M Brindley says:

    Phillip, thanks as always for your application of the highest of Christian principles to the most difficult circumstances. I deeply admire those that are able to follow Christ when faced with the bitterest challenges and I wonder if I would be able to do the same. God bless.

  16. Holly c. Freeman says:

    Beautiful and convicting. I pray each one of us will respond with love, grace, mercy and forgiveness in whatever situation we are called to face. We can only do this by the power of the Holy Spirit. With God nothing is impossible and we have a choice daily to follow in His footsteps or not.

  17. Virginia youdale says:

    So glad to get your latest blog! I was just about to write wondering if my email address had been lost!! I love getting them. Kindest regards and blessings to you and Janet. Virginia

  18. David says:

    This is a powerful message indeed. Forgiveness is most definitely not a human thing, and in my experience we can do it only through the empowering of God. I feel for America right now as so much hatred has been stirred and placed on public display after years of the most horrendous treatment of people created in the image and likeness of God. While we pray that each wronged person comes to know the personal freedom that comes with forgiveness we also pray that the message to Dyaln Roof is clear to those who impose their hatred on others – you too must seek God’s forgiveness, forgive yourselves and work towards repairing the relationships you have destroyed with your hatred. It might be a slow and long process but it is 1000 times better than the previous steps you took to destroying someone else by your words or actions, or both.

  19. Peter Knapp says:

    Thank you Phillip for sharing these important thoughts and a critical time in our country’s history.

  20. Al says:

    Thank you Philip for your words expressing truth in such a loving manner. I met you years ago on a college campus and have followed and loved your writings all along. My wife and I have ministered overseas for years and still today teach the word cross-culturally although we live in the U.S.A. I have personally learned so much from other ethnic groups as they have much to teach us and I recognize that ultimately we all belong to one family—the human race. I have been teaching for some time now the importance of forgiveness. How can we call ourselves Christ followers if we don’t forgive? His example was precisely that even when I didn’t deserve it and as a follower I must act like He did, not just hold the rhetoric of grace and forgiveness. Thanks again for making this clear to us. Blessings.

  21. senti profundamente a dor de uma traição. Perdoei meu conjugue, e nosso relacionamento foi restaurado.

  22. Mark says:

    From “Why Didn’t We Riot?” by Issac Bailey:

    “To white supremacy, grace looks like black people being praised for swallowing our anger or labeled radical if we refuse. If we suck in our tears, stiffen our backs, and stoically and silently endure, they will furl a flag that should have never flown. They pocket our acts of grace and never have to do the hard work of confronting and uprooting centuries of injustice and disparity. They brag about the interracial hugs we share after a white supremacist massacre in a black church. They say nothing when officers shoot black men for selling a drug that’s making white people in other states rich.”

    If blacks in Charleston had acted in righteous anger after the shooting–as, for example, the whites in Michigan who stormed the capital and later plotted to kidnap the governor because they were asked to wear masks–they would have been attacked. They would have been called thugs. In this blog, Yancey is actually supporting the idea that blacks must endure trauma and violence stoically and with grace while whites are allowed to fight back. It’s a continuation of the systemic racism in this country, and highlighting it in this way is harmful.

  23. Margaret Sutherland says:

    Gave me goose bumps again to read these stories. Yes, grace – not just for the killers, thieves, and vandals – but for the haters, mockers, liars and slanderers, for the liberals and the conservatives, for all of us. May God pour out His grace on America!

  24. Deborah Vigneaux says:

    Thank you for this, Philip. I needed to hear this message as I am so discouraged with our current “leadership” and the blatant misuse of power. Thank you for including the video of Obama at that funeral— it moves me every time. We didn’t know what he had in him!

  25. Hang Do Lian says:

    It is a blessing to be able to read your writings.

  26. Jorge and Miriam Ayala says:

    Powerful message! May we all aspire to do better knowing who we love and serve. 🙏🏽😇💕🙋🏽‍♀️

  27. Debbie Jones says:

    That is one of the most moving things I have read in a very long time. Thank you for your continuing commitment to quitting about grace and truth and the amazing love of God.

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